The San Diego Unified School Board approved its 2014-2015 budget Tuesday. In it is $200,000 to extend the life of a pilot program that gave free city bus passes to students in some inner city schools.

Speak City Heights

The school board decided to move forward where the city took a step back. At the outset, the bus passes were billed as a school attendance booster; if low-income kids have access to transit they’ll be more likely to make it to school. But the majority of program participants had stellar attendance to begin with.

The City Council said it couldn’t include the passes in next year’s budget because the data – or lack thereof – couldn’t prove the program’s success. The city had kicked in $200,000 for the first year of the program.

But bureaucratic delays meant many students didn’t get their passes until January or later. Program organizers had little data to present by the time the city was drafting its budget.

“The reason why they didn’t see anything is because we were still collecting the data,” said Bill Oswald, a consultant with The Global Action Research Center who was hired to study the program. “So in my mind, it was just a way of giving up on the commitment they made earlier.”

Councilwoman Marti Emerald said she’s open to funding the program again in future city budgets. A spokesman for Emerald sent this statement:

“Marti supports kids getting to and from school safely and their involvement in extracurricular activities. Last year she voted to fund the pilot project to help get funding for the program, which included funds for bus passes and the study. She is currently waiting for the study’s final report.”

San Diego schools Superintendent Cindy Marten said she’s funding the program this year because it deserves a fair shake.

“The reason why we need to fund it is so we can start (on) day one (in) September so we have a full school year to do it,” Marten said. “But initial data is showing positive gains.”

Oswald’s mid-term report shows students with the passes had more time to work on homework, were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities such as tutoring and sports and were able to avoid unsafe areas because they didn’t have to walk home.

The percentage of pass-holders who witnessed crime decreased from 25 percent at the beginning of the program to 7 percent in March. Smaller – but significant – drops were also seen in the percentage of students who were victims of crime or experienced bullying.

Speak City Heights rode the trolley with program participant Thomas Poston in April. Watch him discuss how he’s benefitted from the pass.

YouTube video

And Oswald said the jury is still out on attendance gains. He’s awaiting district data he said could show students with the passes were more often making it to school on time, thus increasing attendance during the first period.

A City Heights-based resident leadership group called Improving Transportation in City Heights is spearheading the program. Last year it divvied out 1,000 passes to principals at San Diego, Lincoln, Hoover and Crawford high schools. The principals then selected a group of students based on family income and their homes’ distance from school and placed them in a random drawing for the passes.

The group is seeking additional funding from the state and county to expand the program to other schools.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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